Why is it important to help (a reprise from eight Christmases ago)

When I am asked about my volunteering to help the disenfranchised and how can someone go about doing it, my answer is to follow your passions. I usually ask what interests you, how much time do you have and what groups of people do you feel most comfortable helping. For some, it is visiting, talking, reading and singing with the elderly; for some it is mentoring or tutoring school kids; for some it is helping homeless people find shelter, find employment, or gain assistance. These folks need what you have to offer – your time, your experiences, your feedback, your coaching.

I was reminded of this yet again earlier this week. I was meeting with a formerly homeless father who the organization I serve with helped regain a home after he and is wife made poor decisions. He was a former Army soldier and was gainfully employed when he began a cocaine addiction journey that led him to being imprisoned. It also claimed his wife, as he noted, she was in worse shape than him. After his release from prison, he had a hard time and became homeless. He also did not have custody of his son.

Through the help of this agency, he regained a home, regained custody and eventually reconciled with his wife. He was doing well until he lost a second job in short order. He was among seventeen workers who were asked to not come back on January 6 unless called as the company is downsizing to four staff. He is in a bad mental place, so I met with him as I am helping the agency expand a pilot an employment initiative.

He was doing all the right things (resume drafted, applied to 25 or so places) to find another job and I offered some additional suggestions and companies he may wish to consider based on his needs. He also needed someone to offer support and reinforcement. Someone to say keep doing what you are doing and offering constructive feedback. He has interview on Thursday, so keep your fingers crossed.

Yet, I also want to share with you another reason why we should help. You see, through all of these troubles the mother and father have had, his son just graduated with a Master’s degree at a state university. Through all of this, his son was able to find opportunity. Through all of this, his son was able to complete his education. Through all of this, his son was able to break the cycle of poverty. One of the things we emphasize to others, is the homeless kids don’t have a place to study. Oftentimes, they may not eat or go without healthcare. So, helping the family find a home means more than just a roof for kids – it is stability.

When I speak with some people who are more conservative in mindset, I do my best to convince them to help these people climb a ladder. To some, I am wasting my breath, as they view these parents as lazy, drug addicted, or welfare bound. Some like to paint with a broad brush everyone who is in need based on the observations of over-dramatized anecdotes. Yet, the people I encounter are hard-working and are in need of a second job as hours have been cutback or they lost a job. Before the state of Florida was asked to unwind unconstitutional drug testing of welfare recipients, the data from the four months of the program said welfare recipients’ rate of drug use was 1/4 that of general society.

Yet, what I do get even these strident conservative folks to agree on is let’s do something to help the kids. There is a higher propensity for homeless children to become homeless adults than for general society. There is also a higher propensity for children who are violently abused to marry or become abusers themselves when they grow up. I mention the latter as 30% of our homeless families are homeless due to getting away from a domestic violence situation. So, if we can help the kids and parents find homes and help them climb the ladder, we can break the cycle of homelessness and domestic violence.

The Christmas season brings out the generous spirit of many. Yet, the needs last beyond the season. As someone who volunteers, I can tell you there is such great sense of purpose to help others. Follow your passions and offer your help to others. You will be helping more than just one generation. Plus, you will be helping yourself.

Merry Christmas and have a successful New Year.

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Help people find jobs by paying it forward (a reprise)

The following post was written eight years ago, but remains relevant today. We often do not realize we have the ability to help people just using our connections and experience.

In my non-paying job, I spend time helping those who help people in need. In particular, I focus my efforts on homeless families, 84% of whom have jobs. Yet, the jobs are insufficient to pay their bills and when a crisis occurs, they end up losing their home. People who are in or near poverty are living paycheck to paycheck, so they are in a perilous situation as well. And, they number over 50,000,000 in the US. In fact, a statistic I have used frequently is 48% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. To see more on how fragile these families are, I would encourage you to watch the documentary “American Winter” which I wrote about on March 23, 2013 (and recently reposted).

One of the similarities I have witnessed about homeless families or people in poverty is their network of people they can get help from is either non-existent, exhausted or in a similar predicament. I mention this as when people who are doing pretty well are in need of something, they have a network of people to whom they can reach out. For example, I often am approached by friends, colleagues or family, about assisting someone they know network about a job or field of study. One of the reasons is I have been in business for a long time, so I have many contacts. Yet, the other reason is they know I will try to help. I tell people often I enjoy helping people network. It is my way of paying it forward.

When we think about how we can help people in poverty or in trouble, helping them network or connect to others is a way to pay it forward. I heard Bob Lupton, the author of “Toxic Charity” speak and he noted the church congregations are filled with people who have contacts or know how to merchandise yourself or a business and they could be of service to those who have no such experience or relationships. As an example, the mother of a homeless family was able to gain better employment in a doctor’s office through contact with a church volunteer who was lending the family a hand.

Toward this purpose, let me mention a few things to think about to help people in need find a job or gain a better job to support their family.

1. Help people network – this is the one of the most beneficial things you could do. Just as you would help the son or daughter of a friend, meet with the person in need. Find out what they are looking to do and what skills they have and help them connect with people and opportunities of which you know. When you look at your sphere of influence, it is larger than you might think at first glance.

2. Help people see a broader range of options – in my networking with folks, this comes up often. People may hone in on an industry or type of employer and may not have a good understanding of the various options that exist. After discussing the things in number #1 above, I might suggest have you ever thought about this kind of industry, profession or employer? I know they have more opportunities than good candidates, so you may want to consider these avenues.

3. Help people understand what skills they need to acquire or hone – this advice is dear as well. We are blessed with a wonderful community college system and other curriculums that can help people improve their skills. In fact, if you know people who volunteer their time to teach, then you can help connect them with others. If you want to work in an office, then you will likely need better Word, Excel and Powerpoint skills, e.g. If installing solar panels is a viable job, then you may want to check out Goodwill Industries as they partner with the community college to teach that.

4. Help people present well – an entire post could be devoted to this topic. But, what I would suggest in the networking sessions is to offer some coaching. Maybe you could help look over their resume, maybe you could help coach them to go online to learn more about the companies who they will be interviewing with, help them ask informed questions, etc. Maybe you could guide them to Linked In or other job search avenues.

As many in the job market have surmised, applying for a job online is a necessity, but will not get you many jobs. What will get you the job is people who can help you connect and will vouch for you. The homeless families we help have a support group and have been vetted more so than a person who has not been helped. Plus, they know what being down and out looks like, so once plugged into the right situation they will have a strong level of commitment to their employer. I say this last part because when I network, my name is important. I am vouching for someone, so I want to make sure the connection will be fruitful for both. If I don’t do this, then that same contact will be less inclined to review any resumes I forward. That is why meeting the person is important.

These are steps we each can take to help those in need. In so doing, we can help people find a job or find a better paying job in a growing career. And, if you watch “American Winter” you will see there are people just like you and me in need, some who never thought they would be in this situation. There, but by the grace of God, go I is very apropos. Let’s help pay it forward.